(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
These are the true lost treasures of country music. But for an alert radio station employee with a nose for sniffing out treasure, these recordings would have been lost to the world forever. It was an accident that they had been recorded in the first place. The fragile acetate discs were cut so that when Hank Williams and his band were on the road, Nashville station WSM could still air his 15-minute early-morning “Mother’s Best” show sponsored by the flour company of that name. The old acetates (which were metal discs covered with acetone, with recording grooves etched into that) would have lain unnoticed in the bottom of the dumpster where a thoughtless radio station staff member had tossed them. Then they would have gone on to the dump to be forever lost. Even after being found, they remained in legal limbo until a Supreme Court decision freed them up.
Many early television programs suffered a similar fate. In those days of live television and primitive recording facilities, some TV shows were preserved on flimsy kinescopes that usually were discarded. Of Williams’ relatively few TV appearances, only about nine minutes of his performances were saved and exist today. Add to that about nine minutes of known silent home movies and that’s the known extent of Hank Williams on screen.
These early Hank Williams radio show recordings will be released in increments beginning this fall. They provide entire new openings into Hank’s psyche, to his soul, to his very musical being. In a sense, they’re a very real magical key to opening what few doors he would ever allow to be opened. His musical tastes were far wider than had been supposed. The easy banter here with his band members and with his wife and would-be country singer Audrey are as revealing as we are likely to ever discover about him. His song selection on these shows is equally revealing. He can go from “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (which his mentor Fred Rose wrote in the early 1940s, long before Willie Nelson ever thought of cutting it) to the 19th-century, Southern-by-way-of-Scotland death dirge “Lonely Tombs” to the 19th-century lament “The Blind Child’s Prayer” to blues songs to old folk songs such as “On Top of Old Smoky.” He also recorded a PSA about venereal disease, which will not make its way into general release. Unfortunately.
Williams’ life remains a cipher in many ways. He confided in no one, as far as we can tell. He poured out his heart and his guts in his songs. He created his own musical universe, populated by himself and like-minded lonely souls. But the music lives and breathes, and it will last a long, long time.
Finding these Williams songs is akin to discovering a similar treasure chest of lost recordings by the bluesman Robert Johnson or early jazz genius Louis Armstrong or opera great Maria Callas.
The 143 “Mother’s Best” recordings do much more than just about double his known recorded output of songs. They demonstrate his range and taste in music, which goes far beyond the songs that are usually identified with him. Few people today have actually hear many original Hank recordings and the songs that they likely would have heard are the few big hits, from “Cold, Cold Heart” on to “Jambalaya” and so on. But the “Mother’s Best” recordings show a more accessible, down-to-earth side of Hank.
At the time he recorded these songs throughout 1951, Williams was reaching the end of what amounted to the happiest period of his life. “Cold, Cold Heart” hit No. 1 on the country charts in May, and Tony Bennett recorded it that same month and it would soon top the pop charts. Even while Hank was becoming an enormous musical success, he never quit doubting himself, it seemed, even while he was under constant pressure to keep being a hit machine and financially support those around him. On the road, he was such a big draw that the hugely popular comedian Bob Hope was unable to close the shows on the Hadacol Caravan tour that summer — the fans wanted Hank back. He signed a multi-movie deal with MGM Pictures in September. He appeared on national TV on the Perry Como Show.
Throughout it all, he was in almost constant back pain from an undiagnosed birth defect that was worsening. He turned more and more to drink and drugs. In December, he had back surgery that didn’t fix him. He let his band go and gave up his Mother’s Best sponsorship. Audrey, once his one true love, filed for divorce again, and his downward spiral continued until he died on his way to play a New Year’s date at the end of 1952.
Through it all, he kept writing and recording music. The spirit of Hank Williams shines through on these radio shows. He may have been singing to farmers milking their cows early in the morning and to farm wives beginning the day’s chores, but he gave it his all and reached through the microphone and the radio speaker to grab and engage his listeners. It was just him and an audience of one: you, the listener.
This is not Hank Williams, the legend you are hearing in these lost songs. This is Hank Williams, the man.